The us vs. them mentality can either help collectives grow together or fall apart.
I recently had the opportunity to get together with a group of wonderful professors from across the globe at the Harvard Business School and to deliberate on topics related to business and society. As often happens, the moment I introduced myself as being an Indian, the conversations quickly turned to the life and culture in India, their bucket list item of visiting the Taj Mahal, the spiciness of our food, the mathematical prowess, spirituality and the yoga. People are tremendously curious about India.
In one session, we discussed the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. We saw video footage of the entire series of events and specifically of the three-day siege at the iconic Taj Palace Hotel: terrorists on the loose, flames emerging from the top floors, commandos working through the chaos, and people escaping through ladders. A highly emotional experience. In all of this, one thing that stood out was the courage of several ordinary men and women – with no special training - who got together to help and save others out of such a life-threatening crisis. For example, at the Taj Palace the managers, chefs, telephone operators, and everyone else who was on duty that day stayed back to make sure that their hotel guests left safely first. No one had told them to do so; yet they had risked their lives.
We then reflected on the sources of this extraordinary ‘others-first’ behavior. Was it just human instinct to help fellow beings in times of crisis? Did it have something to do with the employees of the Taj Hotels that emerged from their organizational values? Maybe this helping behavior happened in the hospitality industry where caring for others is a core motivation for people to work and so this wouldn’t have happened elsewhere. Perhaps it was Mr. Ratan Tata effect – the highly charismatic and much-revered personality.
Reactions from the foreign colleagues were intriguing. Several people said that these kind of actions – where employees went beyond their work and risked their lives - would happen only in India. Why? Because of India’s national values. They even brought up the notion of Atithi Devo Bhava (Guest is God) and the collectivist ideology of ‘Vasudev Kutumbakam’ (World is a family) that it is so ingrained into our DNA. I was excited to see that India and Indians carried this image in the minds of foreigners.
One factor that played a role in this heroic behavior was the ‘Us versus Them’ feeling. The constant media feeds (however controversial this might have later become) on who the attackers were, what they were doing, and scenes of commandos fighting it out gave an immediate sense of common external enemy. The attackers had hit where it hurt the most: our national pride. And that had brought those who were attacked even more together.
This same ‘us versus them’ that did wonders can turn terribly dangerous as well. Social psychologists have extensively studied the prejudices that result from viewing someone as being outside one’s circle (in psychologists’ language, as part of the outgroup). And we know this from simple observations: we distance ourselves from those who do not share our values, beliefs, customs, or interests. But it doesn’t end there. Such social categorization causes alarm and vigilance responses from our brain whenever we interact with an outgroup-member and this can induce outrageous behaviors such as discrimination, ostracizing, and violence.
In an all-time classic psychology experiment (famously known as Stanford Prison Experiment) led by Professor Philip Zimbardo, regular college students with stable psychological health, were randomly assigned to either being prison-guards or prisoners in a temporary prison. To the researchers’ shock, in no time, both sides internalized their roles. The role-playing guards became authoritarian and tortured the prisoners. And the prisoners accepted that passively. The conditions deteriorated to the extent that the experiment had to be abandoned mid-way. Nevertheless, it gave massive insights into how normal people can end up engaging in unbelievably destructive behavior. Especially so, when they take on opposing roles and when they get a social license by seeing others doing so too.
Later that day, a colleague asked me about how safe it is for women tourists to travel in India. She pointed out to the Delhi rape case. Then, another person asked about the caste system. It left me wondering: this “us versus them” boundary can either help collectives grow together or fall apart. We need to consciously decide where to put the dividing line. Should it be between social classes, gender roles, skin color, regions that we belong to or the larger societal issues such as illiteracy, corruption, and terrorism? The choice should be ours. We, as India, are rising fast and the world is surely watching ‘us’.